When, why, and how did sentimentality get a bad rap? As a literature major, I soon learned that sentimental literature was judged to be manipulative and exploitative of our emotions: If a work of art moved people to tears, then it was somehow unworthy of cerebral or intellectual examination. A recent event, however, causes me to question if sentimentality is making a comeback, or to wonder if those first admonitions against sentimentality matter.
On a recent “American Idol” singing contest, several judges and the show’s host Ryan Seacrest began weeping as they listened to contestant Rhonda Felton’s story about the hardships she and her mother endured — living in shelters, homelessness, changing schools frequently, etc. Rhonda said that music and her mother inspired her to keep going, to never stop fighting. Judge Lionel Ritchie was so moved by this account that he walked to the stage to give Rhonda his handkerchief to wipe her tears.
Fortunately, Rhonda has great pipes, so the judges’ decision to move her to the next level was based on her skill and not solely on the sad story she told. One view of this episode is that we are all standing knee-deep in molasses, enjoying the sticky sweetness and singing together in wonderful accord at the thought of a better life for people via American Idol which has lifted many performers out of the mire of their past lives.
Here’s another more cynical view: The net worth of host Ryan Seacrest totals $450 million; of Lionel Ritchie, $200 million; of Katy Perry, $330 million; of Luke Bryan, $140 million (yes, you can Google anything!). I honestly hoped as I watched this event on my phone that Lionel Ritchie was giving Rhonda his wallet instead of his handkerchief. Imagine my disappointment!
Perhaps I should mention that Rhonda and her mother are black women while the host and two judges are white. A third judge, Ritchie, received a Kennedy Center honor in 2017, and at age 71 is still going strong as singer, songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, and actor. Ritchie was a member of the Commodores soul group before beginning his solo career in 1982. His first album with three hit singles sold over 4 million copies. A second album sold more than twice as many copies. His awards include Grammys; Golden Globes; an Academy Award; and the Johnny Mercer Award, the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s highest honor.
AMERICA’S MOST SENTIMENTAL POETThese thoughts about sentiment arise from the mention of “Mr. Longfellow” in a Ray Bradbury short story that eighth graders at Norwayne Middle School are studying. In “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh,” the General says that the name given to the next day’s conflict might be something worthy of Mr. Longfellow’s creation as the “Battle at Shiloh.” Not having an acquaintance with Mr. Longfellow, students needed a tutorial to enlighten them about this allusion to this most popular poet of his day. Most of us know Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and many realize the sentimental nature of his poetry, sentimentality scorned in his own day and certainly in ours.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on Feb. 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine, the second son of his mother Zilpah and father Stephen, a lawyer and later member of Congress. Longfellow studied modern languages for three years in Europe after graduation from Bowdoin College where he eventually taught the same subjects. He married Mary Storer Potter in 1831 and published his first book in 1835. Following upon his wife’s death during a miscarriage, a grieving Longfellow went to Germany and Switzerland.
Upon his return, he taught at Harvard before publishing his first collection of poems, “Voices of the Night” followed by “Ballads and Other Poems” in 1841. His theme of triumph over adversity inspired people in a young nation, and Longfellow’s popularity grew. He published “Poems on Slavery” in 1842, and these poems were read at anti-slavery societies in the North.
He married Frances (Fanny) Appleton and spent 18 happy years raising their six children. In 1847 he published “Evangeline,” a book-length poem. Poets.org says that today we would call this poem one about “ethnic cleansing” as it relates the British expulsion of the French from the Acadie colony in Nova Scotia and the separation of two lovers, Evangeline Bellefontaine and Gabriel Lajeunesse. Longfellow’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne gave the poet the idea for this poem that was Longfellow’s most popular work, beginning, “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, / Bearded with moss, and in garments green, / indistinct in the twilight ... .” Concerned with national events, Longfellow published “Hiawatha” and “The Courtship of Miles Standish and Other Poems” before writing “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “a call for courage” in the coming Civil War.
Tragedy struck the family again in 1861 when Frances, sealing a letter with wax, set her dress on fire and died from her burns despite Longfellow’s attempts to save her. For the next two years, Longfellow published nothing, but his reading of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” led him to write the first American translation of that work.
At age 58 in 1865, Longfellow’s major work was done as a poet, but 24 different companies in London alone were publishing his works. From 1866 to 1880, he published seven more books of poetry, and his 75th birthday was celebrated across the country. A month later, he died on March 24, 1882.
Walt Whitman wrote of Longfellow: “While Longfellow’s work brings nothing new, does not deal hard blows, he is the poet we needed in a materialistic age. He comes as the poet of melancholy, courtesy, deference — poet of sympathetic gentleness — and universal poet of women and young people.”
I can think of no age more materialistic than the present, no age more in need of “courtesy, deference, and sympathetic gentleness” than now after years of rude boorishness and cruelty to so many like the young contestant on “American Idol.” If sentimentality heals by evoking empathy, then let the healing begin.
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.